In undergraduate and graduate soil science programs, students study how soil supports plant life, affects water drainage and recycles dead and decaying organisms. Many soil science programs include studies in crop science. These programs are typically offered by the agricultural or environmental science divisions at 4-year land grant institutions. Most programs combine classroom work with research.
Prerequisites for a bachelor's degree include a high school diploma or its equivalent, while master's degrees require bachelor's degrees and Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores. Candidates for a doctoral program are required to have a master's degree.
Bachelor's Degree in Soil Science
Most programs focus on sustainable farming or agricultural practices that prevent the exhaustion of a soil's nutrients due to overuse or overgrazing. Other topics may include an analysis of soil contaminants or the effects of pesticide application.
Core coursework consists of calculus, statistics, biology, microbiology and organic chemistry courses. The majority of students' learning experiences take place in the field, whether at county extension services or a school's biological research station and scientific laboratories. Possible course offerings may include the following:
- Soil microbiology
- Soil physics
- Soil classification
- Soil fertility
- Soil morphology
Master's Degree in Soil Science
Students enter a master's degree program in soil science to specialize in the field or prepare for studies at the doctoral level. Since the program is research-oriented, students are encouraged to take interdisciplinary courses in botany, food science and other environmental sciences. This flexibility allows students to pursue their interests, such as soil biotechnology, soil conservation or landscape architecture, to name a few. Advanced coursework also allows students to focus on the soils of a specific environment such as grasslands, wetlands or forests.
Courses apply concepts of soil chemistry and soil physics to topics in crop management or land use. Some programs allow students to complete additional courses in lieu of a graduate thesis. Courses may include the following:
- Nutrient management
- Waste management
- Land reclamation
- Soil fertility
- Forest soils
Doctor of Philosophy in Soil Science
A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Soil Science is for students pursuing research or teaching careers at the graduate level. In many cases, students pick up where they left off in their master's degree program by continuing to focus on their area of specialization. The majority of students' time is spent conducting research. Topics may include finding solutions for the damages caused by mining or exploring the effects of the latest farming techniques on existing soil conditions. Degree requirements include a written and oral exam in addition to the presentation of student research in the form of a doctoral dissertation.
The advanced coursework for a Ph.D. focuses on the practical applications of soil science by emphasizing the role of soil health in watershed management, crop production, plant ecosystems and pollution. Students may take courses in the following topics:
- Soil microbiology
- Soil analysis
- Food science
- Soil conservation and management
- Rhizosphere science
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
Soil and plant scientists earned a median annual wage of $60,050 as of May 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Conservation scientists engage in similar work, and they earned a median salary of $61,110 in the same year. The BLS predicted job growth of 7% for soil and plant scientists (on average) and 7% for conservation scientists (on average) from 2014-2024.
Popular Career Options
Graduates of a bachelor's degree program are prepared for careers in research, education or agribusiness. Job opportunities are available at federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, or with local county extension services. Available career options are listed below:
- Soil scientist
- Environmental consultant
- Soil surveyor
- Extension specialist
Soil science degrees at the undergraduate and graduate level prepare students for employment as agricultural, soil and plant scientists. At the graduate level, study becomes more research-focused and allows students to choose an area to specialize in such as soil conservation or biotechnology.